Victory Lab

What Would Mitt Romney the Management Consultant Think About the Way Mitt Romney Hires Political Consultants?

Mitt Romney and consultant Stuart Stevens during a sound check at the Tampa Bay Times Forum during the Republican National Convention.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages

Ben Wallace-Wells has already written magisterially about the role Mitt Romney played in inventing the practice of management consulting, and his contribution to the relatively modern ambition of rending the corporation “perfect, to strip of its inefficiencies until it might function as a perfectly frictionless economic unit,” as Wallace-Wells memorably put it in New York.  Since Romney joined Bain a generation ago, the consultant has come to represent at once two different (and ultimately incompatible) styles of fixer.  There is the scientist of business, capable of dispassionate measurement and objective decision-making. Then there is the magical stranger who can be invited into any corporate mess and sort it out.

The assumption has long been that Romney’s campaigns are, as the overused and under-demonstrated term of art would put it, “data-driven.”  His 2002 campaign for governor was indeed (as I relate in my book The Victory Lab) a pioneer in using new statistical-modeling techniques to model voters.  But when it comes to the culture of decision-making within his headquarters about campaign strategy, a wisdom entirely detached from empiricism is being celebrated—as two delicious quotes that have emerged in the last 24 hours demonstrate:

“I have a very good team of extraordinarily experienced, highly successful consultants, a couple of people in particular who have done races around the world. I didn’t realize it. These guys in the US—the Karl Rove equivalents—they do races all over the world: in Armenia, in Africa, in Israel. I mean, they work for Bibi Netanyahu in his race. So they do these races and they see which ads work, and which processes work best, and we have ideas about what we do over the course of the campaign. I’d tell them to you, but I’d have to shoot you.”
—Mitt Romney

That’s from Mother Jones’s recently unearthed video of Romney’s remarks at a springtime fundraiser. And then here’s one of those consultants who has worked all over the world—the chief strategist and top wordsmith of the Romney-Ryan effort—in his self-justification to Politico last night:

“Politics is like sports…A lot of people have ideas, and there’s no right or wrong. You just have to chart a course, and stay on that course.”
—Stuart Stevens

Put aside the glaring failures of analogy in each of these.  (Sports is a relativist contest of ideas in which all competitors are equal?  And why would knowing what ads worked in a past Israeli parliamentary election be of any great assistance in trying to unseat an incumbent American president?)  What’s clear from them is that, as his roles changed, Romney started to see the consultant in radically different terms.

Mitt Romney the consultant may have been a scientist of business.  Mitt Romney the candidate wanted to hire a magical stranger.  And he got his man.